On the 75th anniversary of Animal Farm, Orwell’s Fairy Story is more powerful than ever

Orwell: ‘I proceeded to analyse Marx’s theory from the animals’ point of view’

If you’ve read Animal Farm, published in August 1945, and I know you have, you probably read it when you were a teenager. Unlike some of the more impenetrable horrors of the O-level or GCSE syllabus, Orwell’s straightforward prose suits the teenage brain perfectly. He called it a fairy story, of course, but with a secret code of double meaning, which once cracked allows you to look clever.

I did once meet someone in the first term of University who had been taught Animal Farm by teachers who never once mentioned the Russian Revolution. But for everyone else, part of the joy is translating the animals into monsters: Snowball is Trotsky, Napoleon is Stalin, Bluebell, Jessie and Pitcher, and their ferocious pups, are the Red Guards, Boxer represents the Stakhanovite proletariat, and Moses is the orthodox church. Old Major, the Middle White boar exhibited as ‘Willingdon Beauty’ is plainly Karl Marx. His skull is nailed to a post for the animals to file past, like Lenin’s mausoleum, but ultimately ends up buried as the pigs disavow the revolution and rename Animal Farm ‘Manor Farm’, the ‘correct and original name’.

Squealer is a less easy fit, though. As Orwell was writing Animal Farm, between November 1943 and February 1944, in his mind were various shameless propagandists — Joseph Goebbels, or Lord Haw-Haw, or even the street-corner Communists spouting the party line, without reference to reality or truth. He might also have had in mind the BBC, for whom he had recently been broadcasting censored scripts to listeners across India.

The story, set among the rolling hills of the South Downs, is about the betrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution. So far, so clever. It also about the betrayal of all revolutions. Orwell had seen the streets of Barcelona run red with the blood of revolutionaries, killed not by their fascist enemies, but by supporters of the Soviet Union. He had just celebrated the incredible and unexpected landslide victory of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, and the elevation of his fellow-Tribune writer Aneurin Bevan to the Cabinet. Perhaps he had in mind the inevitable disappointments of social-democracy as well as bloody revolution.

Orwell wrote ‘Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.’ In his essay Why I Write, Orwell says ‘every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’

In the preface to the Ukrainian edition in 1947, he wrote ‘for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement. On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could easily be translated into other languages…I proceeded to analyse Marx’s theory from the animals’ point of view.’

Orwell loved animals, although he famously sneered at the people who refused to eat them. It was natural for him to choose English farm animals as characters, and the English countryside as his backdrop. In the 1890s there developed a strand of socialism concerned with constructing a ‘new life’ in the here-and-now, through changes in diet, dress, sexuality and social relations, and by moving to the countryside. This search for bucolic utopia was the progenitor of everything from anarchist communes such as Whiteway, to the BBC sitcom The Good Life.

Orwell was viciously dismissive of New Lifers, and yet he fits perfectly into their tradition: moving to the countryside, setting up a small-holding, living off the land and eschewing all the trappings of bourgeois privilege. He certainly avoided the bourgeois affectation of washing himself, and for the most part, according to John Sutherland in Orwell’s Nose, stank as badly as his goats and sheep.

Orwell wrote that he got the idea for Animal Farm from when he was living in Wallington in Hertfordshire, and saw a little boy driving a carthorse, powerful but unaware, down a lane. The first-ever copy of Animal Farm I bought, from a church jumble sale in Gerrards Cross, states in the introduction that ‘we recognise the setting. It is the Hertfordshire where Orwell lived and wrote and tended his garden and kept poultry.’

But also, and more powerfully, it is the Sussex he knew as a pupil at St Cyprian’s school in Eastbourne. He attended this private school (which was at the end of my road) between 1911 and 1916, and experienced many of the themes of arbitrary power, terror, surveillance and despair in the face of overwhelming authority which he explored in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell never saw the gulag, but he knew the totalitarianism of the English prep school. He also witnessed hopes dashed and promises betrayed in the smashed and prematurely aged faces of the wounded soldiers at the Summerdown convalescent camp on the hillside opposite his school, which he passed on his nature rambles, and he described later in Coming Up for Air.

The experience of the countryside, as an escape, as liberation, as freedom, began with his walks over the Downs to the village of Willingdon. Chalk Farm, now a hotel, plant nursery and project for people with learning disabilities, can reasonably claim to be ‘Manor Farm’. Orwell even remembered the name of the village pub — the Red Lion — which appears in the book as the place Farmer Jones spends so much time that he drunkenly forgets to feed his animals, thus sparking the revolution, and where he ends up in exile once the animals’ take over. It was bread shortages in Petrograd, don’t forget, that sparked the February 1917 revolution.

We all know the rest of the tale. The tenets of the revolution are trimmed, recast, and ultimately removed altogether. The momentary classlessness, such as that experienced by Orwell in revolutionary Barcelona when he saw the working class ‘in the saddle’, is replaced by a new hierarchy of party apparatchiks and ‘somehow the farm had grown richer, without making the animals themselves any richer.’ The animals, no better off than before, peered through the window of the farmhouse and ‘looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’

Orwell showed remarkable moral clarity and courage, denouncing Stalinism at a time when the Soviets were our allies against Nazism, the British Communist Party was at its height (two Communist MPs were elected in the July 1945 election), and the ideas of Soviet Marxism permeated intellectual and political life. This was a full decade before the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and long before the horrors of Cambodia and the Cultural Revolution, although Stalin’s famines and purges were already uncovered.

Victor Gollancz refused to publish it, for fear of the negative reaction it would provoke among his Left Book Club audience. TS Eliot at Faber also rejected it, on different grounds. He felt that the pigs should be in charge, because they are better than the other creatures. Like many best-sellers, Animal Farm had a hard time making it into print.

But despite his stated aim for Animal Farm, Orwell’s enduring appeal is not just as a chronicler of the Russian Revolution and debunker of Marxism. Orwell’s theme is the betrayal of the ‘decent’ (Orwell’s most favoured word) people by the so-called revolutionaries purporting to speak on their behalf, from Hampstead to Harare. Christopher Hitchens in his brilliant Why Orwell Matters points out that the Zimbabwean trade union opposition newspaper Daily News serialised Animal Farm as a direct challenge to Mugabe, until their printing presses were blown up ‘by an anti-tank mine of the sort not available to ordinary citizens.’ The warnings embedded in Orwell’s fable apply to the present and future as well as the past.

On this 75th anniversary, have another look at Animal Farm. Do the ‘spontaneous’ rallies and group incantation remind you of any recent political movements? Do the bloated, hypocritical pigs remind you of any porcine pseudo-revolutionaries with huge salaries, luxury homes and gold-plated pensions? Does Squealer bring to mind any salaried apologists, with their ever-loyal logic-defying tweets, blogs and newspaper columns? Do the yapping, snarling ‘red’ guard dogs remind you of anyone, perhaps in your local CLP? If the answer to any these questions is yes, then Orwell’s work is done.

Paul Richards is a writer.